Skip to main content

Why everyone’s talking about co‑operatives

Blog post

Rose Marley
Written by
Rose Marley
13th January 2021
Co-operatives UK
Rose Marley

Our new CEO, Rose Marley, shares her reflections on her first week in post.

It’s 6.30pm on Friday evening at the end of my first week as CEO of Co‑operatives UK. My husband can’t tear me away from emails. This is not, I hasten to add, because I’m overwhelmed and under‑resourced. Far from it as I have inherited an excellent team. It is because I have been inundated with a range of messages and plans and positive future actions, from a wide selection of ambitious individuals and it’s got my undivided attention!

The last email I picked up was from our brilliant Head of Membership enthusing about a conversation with a resident from a Newcastle housing estate. Shops there have been poorly managed and there is a desire in the community to take the business over, as a co‑operative. The question: How do we do that?

This week I spent time talking to an eminent music manager about the creative environment right now and how artists, across the board, are seeking ‘equitable remuneration’. The solution could be a music co‑operative focused on levelling up the industry and investing in new talent. I also spoke to a textile manufacturer who works with women from extremely challenged backgrounds, some of them refugees. The question again was whether the co‑operative model could help them secure meaningful employment from their textile production. I also spoke to a TV production collective, a female tech and social entrepreneur concerned specifically with ethics – again, all looking to form co‑operatives.

As a new CEO it is understandable that so many people have reached out to me to introduce themselves and their ambitions. The common link between them is that they are people who are looking for fair and equitable trading models. Without exception those I have spoken to are seeking to solve trading and community issues in their own localities or in a specific sector.

A new generation of co‑operators

We had barely pressed send on a news release announcing that we are offering one‑on‑one surgeries for people wanting to discuss the potential of co‑operatives when the first request landed. It came from a 16 year old! How cool is that?

This supports the findings of our latest YouGov poll which points clearly to the fact that 18‑24 year‑olds are more likely to be able to name three or more co‑ops than those in older age groups, demonstrating a real interest in this way of trading.[1]

The same poll shows that co‑operative businesses that are democratically owned and run by their members, may have an advantage over other types of business. This comes at a time when businesses are battling for survival and more and more consumers expect businesses to operate ethically.

Quote mark
There’s so much demand for co‑operatives to help solve problems and that’s why everyone’s talking about them.
– Rose Marley, CEO, Co‑operatives UK

This isn’t the only YouGov stat that grabbed my attention as we started the new year, as trumpeted in ‘Positive News’, 76% of the British public would prefer to buy products and services from businesses that demonstrate positive community impact. [2] There is a demand for the co‑operative movement to demonstrate how, and to provide a way through the noise.

There’s so much demand for co‑operatives to help solve problems and that’s why everyone’s talking about them.

We are the rebuilders

Co‑operatives do have the answers, as we learned last year through our More Than a Shop podcast.  Through this, we came to understand how co‑operatives like The Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative, turned to co‑operative principles to inform their business response to Covid‑19 by providing free repairs for key workers. Their example shows how everyone needs solid guidance when the world feels like its teetering on the edge.

We are the rebuilders who can provide the opportunities everyone is looking for, to build back better

We have, at our fingertips, 175 years of co‑operative principles and business practice from which to learn, and being a bit of a historian I was delighted at Christmas to receive a wonderful book on the history of co‑operatives. 

I was genuinely excited to talk to Liz McIvor, Manager of the Co‑operative Heritage Trust, and excited to share with her that I lived and went to school within a two mile radius of the original Jumbo Farm where the early CWS co‑operative meetings took place. It actually gave me goose bumps to learn that my education had been so physically close to one of the founding organisations.

My point is, that to be able to move forwards it is incredibly important to understand the movement’s past. This helps provide the resolve to embrace the future and its challenges. There is so much great work in place already and I’ve had so many great conversations, such as the digital transformation planning I discussed with Rebecca Harvey from Co‑operative Press. I also spoke to Cilla Ross, Principal at the Co‑operative College who is working with newly appointed CEO John Chilcott to establish how best to nurture a love and understanding of co‑operative enterprise in grassroots education.

Women in leadership

Something else to celebrate – which I certainly did. We have so many women in key roles and lots of female CEOs across retail too including Debbie Robinson (Central England Co‑op) and Jo Whitfield (CEO of Co‑op Food) and so many female leaders booked into my diary. I can’t wait to meet them! It demonstrates we’re still a progressive movement and it is well documented that the wider social enterprise sector has more women in leadership roles at present. This figure is growing with 41% of social enterprises led by women [3] and I’m delighted to say Co‑operatives UK is one of them.

Drawing on the strengths of the past and looking to the future in our ever‑changing landscape we need to remain agile. We are armed with the co‑operative principles to guide us. I have worked across a range of sectors: private, public and social enterprise but I have never experienced such solidarity as I did when stepping into this new role. I immediately felt the impact of those deeply engrained principles.

A co‑operative renaissance

The housing crisis, the gig economy, digital platforms, AI, Automation, biometrics, nano technology, global climate change, a global pandemic, Brexit – we’re not without challenges in the UK. But we have a real opportunity here, the co‑operative movement is due a renaissance – I think we’re on the cusp of it.

I’d like to invite you to join me on the journey.


1. YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2075 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 2nd‑3rd December 2020. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).

2. Positive News issue 104


Related content